April 12, 2021 10 min read
The glute ham raise (GHR) does what it says on the tin - it’s an incredibly effective way to grow your upper legs and build buns of steel.
But the GHR machine is a bulky and expensive piece of equipment that’s missing from many commercial gyms and is unlikely to make its way into your home. Does this mean giving up on growing your glutes and hams?
Not at all. This selection of glute ham raise alternatives will build bulk and power in your upper legs and leave your sitting muscles sore. Ready for a butt worth bragging about? Let’s get to it!
The glute ham raise, also known as the glute ham developer (GHD), is a posterior chain strength and hypertrophy exercise. For the non-scientists in the room, that means it burns up pretty much every muscle on the back side of your body, and hits your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings especially hard.
This builds serious muscle mass, improves full-body strength and stability, and can improve back health. The GHR works knee flexion and hip extension, taking your hamstrings through their full range of motion while building strong upper legs and bulletproofing your lower body.
The GHR will also shred your core, and does all of this using only your body weight. If you lift, you’re going to want to reap those benefits, as building a strong posterior chain will help you to lift heavy and take your squat, deadlift, and clean to the next level.
Including the GHR in your leg day rotation will also increase lower-body explosiveness, get you running faster, and may cause your pants to fit tighter. That all sounds good - why would you do anything else?
For a lot of people, the main reason is access. A glute ham raise machine is a big ol’ piece of equipment with a price tag that matches its size, and it’s not versatile - it’s great for glute ham raises, and… that’s it. For a lot of commercial and home gyms, the cost to benefit ratio just doesn’t make sense. The GHR is also not a beginner move.
You won’t complete your glute ham raise reps with good form unless you already have serious posterior chain strength and a lot of gym experience. Alternatives to the glute ham raise allow you to:
If you’ve been scrolling through #fitspo on social media, you’d be forgiven for believing that the glutes and thigh muscles just exist to look good. A lot of fitness influencers seem to want a bubble butt and strong legs so they can fill out their yoga pants just right. That’s as good a reason as any to chase gains, but the glutes and hams do a whole lot more than just sit pretty.
Your glutes, or butt muscles, are made up of three muscle sets - the gluteus minimus, medius, and maximus. The maximus is the main player, and the biggest and strongest muscle in your body.
The maximus allows you to extend your hips and move your thighs, as well as filling out your jeans. The medius rotates the thigh and moves the leg away from the middle of the body, while the minimus works together with the medius and stabilizes your pelvis when you’re running or walking.
Together with your abs, obliques, and lower back, the glutes are part of your body’s core and are key to explosive movements like jumping and sprinting, as well as helping you stand, sit, and walk. Strong glutes will help you to lift heavy and reduce back pain, while weak glutes will put stress on your hamstrings, knees, calves, and lower body joints.
As the glutes are one of the largest muscle sets in your body, growing your glutes will also increase your lean body mass. This will raise your metabolic rate and so help you to burn up calories both during and after workouts.
The hamstrings are a group of muscles and tendons on the back side of your upper leg. They work to flex the knee joint and extend the hip, and get moving when you walk, run, jump and take the stairs.
The hams work in opposition to the quads, so it’s important to balance quad-targeted workouts with exercises that build strength in the hamstrings. These muscles are also vulnerable to injury during sports that mix running with fast starts and stops - basketball, soccer, football, or tennis - and hamstring pulls and strains are some of the most common injuries in both pro athletes and gym newbies.
Strengthening your hams will help you to avoid hamstring and knee injury, so keep you running with the pack. And together with the calves and back, the glutes and hamstrings make up the posterior chain - one of the largest and most powerful muscle groups in the body.
Whether you’re a bodybuilder, sprinter, weightlifter, footballer, or just someone who likes being able to move around and lift things, you’re going to want a strong posterior chain. Sounds like it’s time to get those glutes and ham it up.
To make the cut, the exercises below all do at least one of the following:
So without further ado, the best exercises to grow your glutes, hammer your hams, and build legit lower body strength.
Time to rise and shine. Good mornings are a great alternative to the glute ham raise because they work all the same muscles in a similar range of motion but in reverse. Good form is key as bad form can lead to injury, and that’s not a good look on anyone.
Variation: Banded Good Mornings
A great alternative to standard good mornings if you’re on the go or don’t have access to a barbell that uses a resistance band. Stand on one part of the band and loop the other end around the back of your neck.
Stand up straight. Bend your hips back while keeping your back neutral and lower your upper body until it’s parallel to the floor. Extend your hips to return to starting position. Repeat.
The Romanian deadlift is a deadly effective posterior chain exercise, bulking out your back, glutes, and hams, while also training hip extension. Use heavier weights for fewer reps (instead of lighter weights and more reps) to see greater gains in less time, but make sure that you can maintain good form throughout a set.
If you’re looking to supersize your hams, look no further - this exercise is the one. Also known as natural GHRs, Nordic hamstring curls are an effective and versatile bodyweight exercise that will strengthen your hamstrings and protect them from injury, while also building mass in your arms, chest, and shoulders.
Whether you’re working out in your garage gym or in the park, there’s a Nordic hamstring curl variation for you. Expect to do a low number of reps, as this move will really hammer your hams.
You will need a soft surface for your knees (a mat or cushion) and something stable to secure your feet. You can use a weighted barbell, lat pulldown machine, doorway pull-up bar, a partner, or your trusty couch to keep your feet in place.
Beginner variation: When you’re starting out, tie resistance bands to a high anchor point and wrap them around your upper body to take some of the weight off your descent.
Body-blaster: If you’re knocking out rep after rep with perfect form, holding weights at shoulder height will turn up the heat and give you a challenge you won’t forget.
The kettlebell swing is a classic for a reason. It’s a powerful explosive exercise that will set your hams and glutes on fire. Expect to see improved hip extension, glute power, and explosive movement when you’ve got into the swing of it.
Variation: If you don’t have a kettlebell, this exercise can be completed with a dumbbell. Hold a dumbbell by one end with both hands, and complete the move as above.
The barbell hip thrust is a great weight-training move that drives posterior chain activation. It builds muscle and strength in your glutes, lower back, and hamstrings as well as your core and hip adductors.
Adding a barbell to the standard hip thrust seriously increases the difficulty of this move, so expect to feel sore the next day.
Keep it simple. The hip thrust can be done using just your bodyweight - less challenging, but more portable. The weight of the barbell can also be replaced with one or two dumbbells.
If you don’t have access to a bench, start lying down on a mat with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Raise your hips to their highest point, stabilizing the barbell with your hands.
This is a weighted glute bridge, which works the same sets of muscles in a similar range of motion.
Warning: Cable pull-throughs will leave your lower body aching. But if you can pull through the pain, this move will build insane glute and hamstring strength. Use a resistance band if you don’t have access to a cable machine.
The reverse hyperextension is one of the best alternatives to the glute ham raise because it puts the same set of muscles to work. It’s a great exercise for driving glute and hamstring hypertrophy and building posterior chain power and strength.
You will need a surface that is stable and high enough to give you a long range of motion, like a flat bench.
As with any exercises, make sure to warm up before you get moving, cool down afterward, and give your body the fuel and rest it needs to recover. These moves are best mixed in with a varied strength and cardio routine - spending all week doing only hamstring exercises will lead to pain, not gains.
When you’re starting out with a new exercise, consider getting a personal trainer or coach to help you perfect your form and avoid injury, and start with lighter weights that allow you to maintain good form throughout a set. If you experience pain while doing any exercises, stop immediately and consult a health or fitness professional.
So that’s the secret to building mass and strength in your posterior chain. Mix a few of these exercises into your leg day routine and get ready for glorious glutes and rock-hard hams!